When the Cutchogue Fire Department needed a firefighter with the expertise to operate its fire rescue boat, Jason Cooper was there. When his country needed his service during the first Gulf War in Desert Storm, Jason Cooper was there. When the New Suffolk School Board needed a volunteer community member to serve, Jason Cooper was there.
“Whatever he did, he was a leader,” said Cutchogue Fire Chief Larry Behr. “He just had the respect of everybody.”
Mr. Cooper, a beloved 16-year member of the fire department and a lifelong New Suffolk resident known for his generosity and dedication to helping others, died June 7 at the age of 47.
His unexpected passing following an accident at his mother’s New Suffolk home dealt a devastating blow to the fire department and community where Mr. Cooper spent his life.
“I’m speechless,” Mr. Behr said. “He was the life of this place.”
Southold Town police received a call at 6:41 p.m. June 7 from Mr. Cooper’s mother, who reported that her son had been working outside on her home and had fallen from a ladder, according to Police Chief Martin Flatley.
“It was really a very tragic accident,” Chief Flatley said. “He was very well liked and known in the fire department.”
First responders from the Cutchogue Fire Department, which has its headquarters on the same road as the house, quickly arrived on scene to find their fellow fireman. Chief Flatley said a member of the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s office pronounced Mr. Cooper dead at the scene.
Mr. Cooper is survived by his wife, Jeanette, whom he married in 2000, and their children, Thomas, Robert and Anna.
Mr. Cooper spent the past 18 years serving with the Air National Guard, most recently as an accessories branch master sergeant at Francis S. Gabreski Air National Guard Base in Westhampton Beach.
Friends and family gathered this past weekend for services to remember him. A firematic service Sunday night drew more than 275 uniformed firefighters, Mr. Behr said.
“That shows the respect that he had in the community,” the fire chief said.
On Monday morning, a large American flag was hung above Main Road in Mattituck from the tops of two ladder trucks as a parade of fire vehicles passed beneath it to Mattituck Presbyterian Church, where Mr. Cooper had been a member, for the funeral service.
Mr. Cooper grew up on the water in New Suffolk and graduated from Southold High School in 1988 before serving in the U.S. Navy. He most recently was the lieutenant with the fire department’s water rescue team.
“His skill and expertise on the water made everyone comfortable when he was at the helm,” Mr. Behr said.
In 2015, Mr. Cooper decided to run for a seat on the New Suffolk Board of Education, saying at the time that he felt it was important to maintain the district’s identity. His family’s ties to the school date back three generations. He attended New Suffolk School, his children also attended and he volunteered there as well, even serving as a school custodian at one time.
New Suffolk school board president Tony Dill said the small community has been stunned by Mr. Cooper’s passing.
“It’s a tremendous loss, not only to the community because the family has been a pillar here for a lifetime or more, but specifically to the school,” he said. “He filled so many roles and was knowledgeable on so many things.”
Mr. Cooper had also been a liaison between the school and the Mattituck-Cutchogue Little League, Mr. Dill said, adding that he played a vital role in fixing up a ballfield in Cutchogue two years ago.
Mr. Cooper brought a “breadth of experience” to the school board that was unmatched, Mr. Dill added. He understood that what worked at a larger school might not apply in New Suffolk’s unique district and his approach on the board reflected that, Mr. Dill said.
In 2012, when no candidate was on the ballot for school board, Mr. Cooper tied with another resident as a write-in candidate. On Election Night, he conceded the race to allow fellow resident Brooke Dailey to serve, saving the district time and money.
“Rather than have the school undertake the cost and the effort of another vote, he voluntarily withdrew and allowed his opponent to claim the seat,” Mr. Dill said. “It was a very selfless act.”
Mr. Dill said as the next couple of weeks pass, the magnitude of Mr. Cooper’s loss will fully begin to set in.
“People knew who he was even if they didn’t know him very well,” he said. “In some less direct ways, everybody feels affected and it has had — and will continue to have — a very big impact on how we go forward.”
Photo caption: Jason Cooper at a school board meeting in June 2015. (Credit: Nicole Smith, file)